Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jágr hat trick and Pavelec shutout lead Czechs into semis

It now seems eons ago, but there was a time at the start of the tournament when Czech fans were concerned about the lack of production from Jaromír Jágr and, even more so, about if they could go far riding the goaltending of Ondřej Pavelec. In Wednesday's quarterfinal against the United States, they both brought their "A" games.

Jaromír Jágr and Ondřej Pavelec were the heroes of
Wednesday's victory. Photo:
He's a well-known figure in the world of hockey, but in the Czech Republic Jágr is much more than that. He's a living legend. A legend that many people think is nearing the end of his career, leaving them to wonder how much magic he has left in him. On Wednesday, he didn't seem to show any signs of slowing down, scoring three goals in the Czechs' 4-0 quarterfinal victory.

Amazingly, considering his career filled with accolades, this was his first hat trick with the Czech national team. "I hope that it won't be the last," he said afterward.

In the first knock-out game of the 2011 World Championship, Czechs around the country gathered around outdoor screens in public squares and beer gardens on a beautiful spring evening. Perhaps the largest such gathering was at Prague's historic Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square). In many locations, people arrived at their viewing locations hours beforehand to secure a spot with a decent view of the game. But for most of the time, they were all standing anyway, singing away as if they were live in the arena. On this day, their favourite chant was for the day's hero: "Jáárda Jágr! Jáárda Jágr!"

"What can you say about Jágr?" said Milan Michálek. "He's unbelievable. He's 39 but playing like a 20-year-old, flying on the ice. He's so strong."

However, in the post-game scrum, Jágr did his best to deflect the adoration onto the person whom he thought deserved it: his goaltender. "We didn't play well. This time we were much luckier than in other games. Thank God that Ondra Pavelec played so well. Especially in the first period he made some fantastic, great saves."

Indeed, the Americans did have the run of the play for much of the opening period, although the shots were even at 12 apiece. Pavelec had to come up big on a few occasions, particularly on a US power-play midway through the period when he made a spectacular glove save off of Craig Smith. "He took a high shot and I was on the goal line," Pavelec explained to "Luckily, he hit my glove. That put me in the game. It was basically my first save. After that I felt okay."

While the veteran Jágr is used to forming the nucleus of Czech teams, the 23-year-old Pavelec is making his debut as the national team's starting netminder and he has big skates to fill, as he's patrolling the crease that greats such as Dominik Hašek and Tomáš Vokoun have led Czechs to championships in recent memory. The pressure doesn't seem to be getting to him.

Pavelec's play kept the game scoreless so Jágr could open the scoring late in the opening period on a two-on-one, when his shot snuck through the pads of Ty Conklin and dribbled over the line.

On a second-period five-on-three, Jágr made it 2-0 when he one-timed a pass from Tomáš Plekanec just inside the post. By the midway point of the third, Plekanec scored a goal himself to put the game away for the Czechs. There were only two more questions.

Jágr answered one of those questions with 3:35 left on the clock when he again converted a pass from Plekanec on the power-play to complete his hat trick. The other question was answered by Pavelec, who lost a shutout in the final minute earlier in the tournament against Finland. This time he held on, making 29 saves for his second shutout of the tournament.

And the sun- and beer-soaked Czech fans watching outside gave their due to the goalkeeper when he was announced as player of the game: "Óóndra Pavelec! Óóndra Pavelec!"

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